Gandhi is a fascinating person.
Whether one loves him or hates him or revers him or studies him…there is no denying the fact that he is one of the most gripping and interesting characters to emerge in the history of the last century.
I had the opportunity to study an interesting facet about Gandhi – one that will no doubt lead us to learning more about the great man but also help us understand the power of a story!
The Power of Mythology
Throughout History, Myths have been used by people all over the world, to inspire and draw others into action.
Evidence ranges from how the Ram Janma Bhoomi issue still matters in India to the creation of the modern nation state of Israel that played on the Biblical myth of the Return of the Jews to the Promised Land.
Whether we like it or not, Mythology Matters!
Mythology is not just a source of bed-time tales! It is far more than we give it credit for!
Gandhi’s use of Mythology
Just like we use Gandhi as the poster boy today to drill in the idea of Swaccha Bharat – Gandhi also turned to a popular character from Indian Mythology and Narrative when he was in need of a poster boy to further his idea of nationalism and independence.
And he chose cleverly, an evergreen Indian figure, a name people could easily identify with.
Gandhi turned to Rama.
In his ideals (Ramrajya), in his philosophy (Sarvodaya), in his practices (fasting), right down to his political speeches, Gandhi repeatedly returned to Rama.
Gandhi says in his Biography that the Ramayana left an indelible impression on him since his childhood. Speaking of his childhood he says,
‘…I have said before that there was in me a fear of ghosts and spirits. Rambha (his nurse) suggested as a remedy for this fear, the repetition of Rāmanāma. I had more faith in her than in her remedy, and so at a tender age, I began repeating Rāmanāma to cure my fear of ghosts and spirits. This was of course short-lived, but the good seed sown in childhood was not sown in vain. I think it is due to the seed sown by that good woman Rambha that today Rāmanāma is an infallible remedy for me.
Elsewhere, in his Autobiography ‘My Experiments with Truth’, Gandhi mentions being exposed to ‘katha’ in his childhood. He recalls how he was captivated by the power of these tales in his childhood. He recounts what a deep impression was left on his mind by listening to Ladha Maharaj (the kathakar or the religious story teller who used to recite the Epic Katha of the Rāmāyana.)
Gandhi also narrates how Ladha Maharaj, a devotee of Lord Rāma was cured of leprosy by repeating Rāma-nama. This part of his Autobiography clearly indicates how he was deeply influenced by the world of Indian mythology.
(Gandhi’s reference to the Rāmāyana in his writings are actually references to Tulsidas’ Ramcharita Manas and not Valmiki’s Ramayana.)
Ram Rajya : Gandhi’s term for the ideal state
While one sees and hears about this term being used in the Indian political scene today, one can trace its origins in the political landscape to Mahatma Gandhi, who used the term Ram Rajya to explain what he meant by the ideal state.
Gandhi believed and said often that if Indians could live according to the high ideals of the the Ramayana, they would be able to overcome poverty, untouchability and foreign rule.
His constant reference to Ramraj or Ramrajya and Rāma’s just rule is said to have had a strong impact on the Hindu population in north India. However, it is important to understand what Gandhi meant by Ram Rajya – it did not mean he advocated Hindu Raj.
In his speeches and his writings, Gandhi referred to ancient religious tales to substantiate his method of satyagraha, and emphasized often the pre-requisite of an austere lifestyle reminiscent of the tapas of Parvati, Prahalad and Vasistha.
Gandhi also repeatedly quoted from the Rāmāyana to give strength to his political views.
Fasting as a Tool : Where did Gandhi get the idea?
Anyone who has read the story of Gandhi knows that he turned to fasts as a way of offering repentance. He also turned to fasting as a political tool.
Gandhi conducted a total of 17 fasts during his political career. The longest of them extending for 21 days.
One may well ask, what the source of his inspiration was.
Here’s what Gandhi wrote in 1939…
Rāma chandra fasted for the sea to give way for his army of monkeys. Parvati fasted to secure Mahadeva himself as her Lord and Master. In my fasts, I have but followed these great examples, no doubt, for ends, which less noble than theirs.’
Gandhi’s greatest political tool too was inspired from Mythology!
Gandhi’s constant Reference to Epics
In his speeches and in his writings, Gandhi constantly referred to incidents from Mythology. Sample some of these writings of Gandhi.
- Writing about Satyagraha, Gandhi writes…
‘….If the politicals gain the upper hand, there will be no Ram Raj in Rajkot. Ram Raj means renunciation all along the line. It means discipline imposed by the people…’
- Writing about the World War, Gandhi writes….
If the Nazis come to India, the Congress will give them the same fight that it has given to Great Britain. I do not underrate the power of satyagraha…Personally I think the end of this giant war will be what happened in the fabled Mahābhārata war. The Mahābhārata has been aptly described by a Travancorean as the permanent history of man. What is described in that great epic is happening today before our very eyes. The warring nations are destroying themselves with such fury and ferocity that the end will be mutual exhaustion. The victor will share the same fate that awaited the surviving Pandavas. The mighty warrior Arjuna was looted in broad daylight by a petty robber. And out of this holocaust must arise a new order for which the exploited millions of toilers have so long thirsted. The prayers of peace-lovers cannot go in vain. Satyagraha is itself an unmistakable mute prayer of an agonised soul.’
Elsewhere, he writes…
‘The whole world is on trial today. No one can escape from the war. Whilst the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata are the products of poets’ imagination, their authors were not mere rhymesters. They were seers. What they depicted is happening before our very eyes. Ravanas are warring with each other. They are showing matchless strength. They throw their deadly weapons from the air. No deed of bravery in the battlefield is beyond their capacity of imagination.’
- Writing about Fasting, Gandhi writes…
Fasting is an institution as old as Adam. It has been resorted to for self-purification or for some ends, noble and well as ignoble. Buddha, Jesus and Mohomed fasted so as to see God face to face. Rāma chandra fasted for the sea to give way for his army of monkeys. Parvati fasted to secure Mahadeva himself as her Lord and Master. In my fasts, I have but followed these great examples, no doubt, for ends, which less noble than theirs.’
The Irony to this Story is that what had inspired Gandhi all his life, had also inspired those who opposed him, including the man who would take Gandhi’s life – Nathuram Godse.
Here’s an extract of the famed statement of Nathuram Godse in Court when he was tried for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
I would consider it a religious and moral duty to resist and if possible, to overpower such an enemy by use of force. (In the Rāmāyana) Rāma killed Ravana in a tumultuous fight and relieved Sita. (In the Mahābhārata ) Krishna killed Kansa to end his wickedness; and Arjuna had to fight and slay quite a number of his friends and relations, including the revered Bhishma, because the latter was on the side of the aggressor. It is my firm belief that in dubbing Rāma , Krishna and Arjuna as guilty of violence, the Mahatma betrayed the total ignorance of the springs of human action.
Myths and Ideas in Mythology inspired Gandhi during his life. They inspired the man who killed Gandhi to end his life.
Life, as they say, comes Full Circle!
Read my article in the Bhavan’s Journal on the Impact of Mythology on India’s Freedom Movement.